Reporting from St. Petersburg, Russia —
In a land that miraculously wins the right to hold winter Olympics in a subtropical zone and where oligarchs soaking in oil amuse their vanity by buying NBA and Premier League teams when they are not being sent away to Siberia, few raised their eyebrows when a reputed banana king billionaire put himself at the head of a state-owned theater.
But when Spanish choreographer Nacho Duato moved here this month to start on his five-year contract as head of the ballet company of St. Petersburg's Mikhailovsky Opera and Ballet Theater — the first foreigner in this capacity in more 100 years after the legendary Frenchman Marius Petipa — many raised some interesting questions. The most prominent: Is this just another nouveau riche extravaganza? Or is it possible that one of the pillars of Soviet-Russian culture, the famed Bolshoi-style classical ballet, has finally decided to rethink its sclerotic ways?
As wet snow falls outside, the Spanish dance wizard offered his own view, speaking in English. "I want to teach the [Russian] dancers to enjoy modern dance, to move their bodies in a different way, to touch each other in a different way, to be more contemporary like people in the streets," said Duato, dressed all in black, looking like a Mick Jagger of dance, lean and almost haggard, his unruly hair falling over his bespectacled eyes. "My dream and my job is to change the company, to make new productions, renovate the old productions, keeping up the traditions of course, respecting very much the music, respecting the steps but renovating them, making them alive, making them up to the 21st century, because it would be like a terrorist act to stop the classical ballet here."
Duato watched intensely as two male dancers and a ballerina started practicing. A minute later, when the music stopped, the Spaniard leaped from his chair, sliding and turning to the center of the room, his lips singing the music, his hair flowing in the air and his legs taking elaborate steps. The dancers tried the steps while looking at their reflections in the mirror. For all their classical skills, this is a language they have yet to master.
When asked how long he planned to stay in Russia, Duato answered with a joke, saying he'd even like to be buried here "as Russian cemeteries are much better-looking than those in Spain, and they keep better under snow."
He seems to have been received warmly by his charges. "It gives me great pleasure to work with Nacho Duato as he is teaching us all these new things," said Yekaterina Borchenko, a prima-ballerina of the company in between rehearsing the pas-de-trois for a new ballet. "I have been a classical dancer all my life, but I am sure working with Duato will enhance my ballet skills and understanding as well."
Duato, 54, who in the last 20 years turned Spain's Compañia Nacional de Danza from "nothing" in his own words into one of the world leaders of contemporary dance, finally got disillusioned with Spain's government for not responding to his desire to set up his own theater and school. Spurning other offers, he moved here at the invitation of Vladimir Kekhman, a tycoon who reportedly built his fortune selling imported fruits, then switched some of his attention to sponsoring the arts.
Kekhman gave new life to the theater by investing $35 million into renovating the premises, including a downtown square, and shaking up its opera and ballet companies; his hope is to attract again full-house audiences, expand its touring venues and render a new impulse to ballet in general.
Explaining his choice of a celebrated foreigner for the key job, Kekhman complained that "already two generations of Russian dancers practically don't know what a choreographer is who is also staging productions for them."
"Ballet is considered a national treasure, and so far it is really so," Kekhman said in a written response to questions. "But it is impossible to preserve the art of ballet limited by the repertoire created several decades ago as ballet dies when it stops developing."
The Mikhailovsky Theater was founded in 1833, employing mostly French and European performers. The Mikhailovsky ballet under a different name became famous in the '20s and '30s of the 20th century under choreographer Fyodor Lopukhov. These were the years when Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev saw their ballet and opera productions premiered at the Mikhailovsky. The theater employs more than 800 people, including 130 dancers.
Handing a prized dance company over to a foreigner is more than an impertinence in this land. After all, in the '60s and '70s, a very popular underground song composed by Yuri Vizbor included this line: "But we are making rockets, and we dammed the Yenisey river, and we are ahead of the entire planet in the sphere of ballet."